GREEN BAY – At the onset of each training camp, a general manager dreams of facing difficult roster decisions.
In theory, tough personnel choices indicate a roster bloated with talent. Of course it also could mean mediocrity. Which will be the Green Bay Packers’ reality this August won’t be known until the regular season is well underway, but this much seems likely as Brian Gutekunst embarks on his first preseason as general manager: Difficult decisions are looming.
It’s always a fool’s errand to predict the 53-man roster before training camp. This year is especially challenging. An overview of the Packers’ 90-man roster entering camp, which will start 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Ray Nitschke Field, foreshadows several positions that could develop into roster battles. The list includes quarterback, receiver, offensive line, outside linebacker and the secondary.
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Knowing things are bound to change, here’s a best-guess projection of how the 53-man roster will shape up.
Quarterbacks (2): Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer.
If it remains close between Kizer and Brett Hundley, it’s possible the Packers would keep both. A year after being exposed as unprepared at quarterback behind Rodgers, they absolutely do not want to repeat history. But with numbers tight at so many other positions, keeping Kizer and Hundley isn’t the ideal scenario. And the Packers did not relinquish a significant asset — trading their most productive cornerback, Damarious Randall — to acquire Kizer only to release him. He should be considered the frontrunner until proven otherwise.
Running backs (4): Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery, Devante Mays, Aaron Ripkowski.
Suspended for the season’s first two games, Aaron Jones will not count against the initial 53. His absence likely means there will be a roster spot for Mays, a seventh-round pick in 2016 whose potential remains high despite fumbling his way into the dog house as a rookie. Joe Kerridge, who was playing Ripkowski close to even before an injury in last year’s camp, could make a run at the 53 as a second fullback to help bolster a thin group of core special teamers. But keeping two fullbacks is always a luxury.
Receivers (6): Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis, J’Mon Moore, Equanimous St. Brown.
Usually, final receiver spots boil down to special-teams value. Which makes this projection especially difficult. The Packers added a trio of receivers on the third day of the NFL draft: fourth- rounder Moore, fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling and sixth-rounder St. Brown. The three combined for almost no special teams experience in college, giving veteran Davis a direct path to the roster. It’s splitting hairs to separate the three rookie receivers without seeing them in pads. Valdes-Scantling might have the most upside, but he’s also raw and could use some time to develop on the practice squad.
Tight end (3): Jimmy Graham, Lance Kendricks, Marcedes Lewis.
Finally, a position that should be pretty well sorted. There’s a big gap between the Packers’ top three tight ends and everyone else. Three tight ends is still a little undermanned — four would be ideal — but in Graham, Kendricks and Lewis, the Packers have a wealth of experience and seemingly all the responsibilities of the position covered. Emanuel Byrd, who ended last season on the active roster with a pair of catches in Detroit, is an intriguing prospect because of his athleticism, but with practice squad eligibility remaining he makes the most sense there.
Offensive line (10): David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, Justin McCray, Jason Spriggs, Kyle Murphy, Byron Bell, Lucas Patrick, Cole Madison, Dillon Day.
Here’s where things get really interesting (as if quarterback and receiver battles weren’t interesting enough). It really is impossible to predict what the offensive line depth chart will look like come September. Behind Bakhtiari, Taylor and Linsley, anyone could win a job. You could also make cases against almost anyone. Bottom line, jobs will be earned on film in practice and exhibitions, and injuries very well may play a deciding factor. With a couple decisions on the 53 delayed because of Aaron Jones’ suspension and Bryan Bulaga’s likely inclusion on the physically unable to prepare list, don’t be surprised if these battles carry past camp.
Defensive line (5): Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Muhammad Wilkerson, Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams.
Another position that seems pretty settled as camp opens. The Packers haven’t kept five defensive linemen on their initial 53 since 2015, choosing the past two years to keep an additional sixth. If they go with these five, the Packers could pad another position this season.
Outside linebacker (6): Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Vince Biegel, Reggie Gilbert, Kyler Fackrell, Chris Odom.
Perhaps the answer to a thin outside linebacker depth chart will be to keep everybody. After Matthews and Perry, nobody has separated themselves as the No. 3 edge rusher. Indeed, the gap between Nos. 2 and 3 is much greater than Nos. 3 and 6. The Packers desperately need at least two to join Matthews and Perry and give them a solid quartet. Here’s guessing they’ll provide ample opportunity, even extending into the regular season if necessary. With so much parity at this position, don’t discount seventh-round rookie Kendall Donnerson’s chances.
Inside linebacker (3): Blake Martinez, Oren Burks, Jake Ryan.
In Martinez and Ryan, the Packers had a pair of tackle machines as off-ball linebackers. Both are limited in pass coverage, which is why the Packers used a third-round pick to draft Burks. Together, the trio should be able to cover all primary responsibilities of their position. The success of this group depends on how quickly Burks develops.
Cornerback (6): Tramon Williams, Davon House, Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Lenzy Pipkins.
Could this be the end for 2015 second-round pick Quinten Rollins? After the Packers shipped away 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall this spring, Rollins figures to have an uphill climb to a roster spot while returning from a torn Achilles. But it isn’t just Rollins who will tempt the Packers to keep additional cornerbacks. Josh Hawkins, Demetri Goodson, Donatello Brown and Herb Waters could all get a look. As a whole, the Packers have tried to get their cornerback depth chart in a good place for a couple years now. This group has a nice blend of veteran experience and developmental youth.
Safety (5): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Josh Jones, Kentrell Brice, Jermaine Whitehead, Marwin Evans.
Morgan Burnett is gone, but the Packers still have adequate depth at the back end of their defense. That doesn’t mean the position is without intrigue. One of the better battles in camp could be Jones and Brice for the starting strong safety job.
Specialists (3): Mason Crosby, JK Scott, Hunter Bradley.
Mason Crosby is the Packers’ all-time points leader and perhaps the greatest kicker in franchise history. Scott and Bradley are among the rarest breeds, a rookie punter and long snapper battery who were both drafted. If Packers have their way, this will be their specialist group for many years.